If you are looking for a local outing that takes in some sun while relaxing along bayside cliffs with winds off the Atlantic Ocean — and offering a small mix of history in a museum tour — Beavertail Lighthouse ranks at the top of the list.
It is an iconic lighthouse — one of the 21 still found in Rhode Island. The quaint old structure has a claim to fame as the third oldest in the United States. Remnants can even be found of the original 1749 light that guided mariners as they approached the Beavertail peninsula in on Jamestown.
“This is such a lovely place and packed with so much history and a nice park, too,” said Linda Warner, a board member of the Beavertail Lighthouse Museum Association. And she should know.
She is a 1993 founding member of the Beavertail Lighthouse Museum Association that oversees the Beavertail compound of U.S. Coast Guard-owned buildings, including the 64-foot granite tower lighthouse that still flashes signals from the tip of Beavertail.
Located on the spacious grounds of the Beavertail State Park, overseen by the R.I. Department of Environmental Management, the light tower with the light keeper’s house, adjoining assistant keeper’s house, an oil storage building and a children’s makeshift aquarium form the small federally-owned compound.
“A lot of people have a romantic notion of what life is like living in a lighthouse,” said Warner. Another board member on hand for a pre-season opening tour, Varoujan Karentz, looked on with a smile.
“It was a very tough life,” said the retired corporate executive, experienced offshore sailor, and author of three Rhode Island history books and numerous articles.
“Children had to help with the work and there was maintenance and things to do every day,” added Karentz, 93, who has been a docent there for over 16 years.
Warner, 78, is also a docent and recites historical details in rapid fashion. These volunteers say they love their work at the compound where visitors come to soak up this maritime experience.
Beavertail State Park
The park is at the tip of Beavertail Road in Jamestown, which is also known as Conanicut Island. It is the second largest island in Narragansett Bay.
Beavertail State Park, according to state officials, offers some of the most beautiful vistas along the New England coastline. The park attracts people from all over the country to enjoy its pristine environment.
Beavertail’s most popular activity is sightseeing and can be done from the comfort of a vehicle from overlooks or on foot from a rocky coastline.
It also provides some of the best saltwater fishing in the area, along with offering hiking trails, sunbathing on spacious lawns and a naturalist program that attracts hundreds of people each year.
Programs at Beavertail include the Beavertail Environmental Interpretive Program. It is also a premier site for marine education, tide pools are accessible for ecology or marine biology field studies. The Beavertail fault and associated geologic features teach a story of ancient Rhode Island history.
For instance, there’s also the Marine Biology Tidal Excursion. This is an introduction to tidal life and ecology. A nearby tidal pool during low tide reveals to visitors the aquatic plant and animal life around Beavertail.
The Beavertail Aquarium schedules group activities. Facilities and programs are available to groups 7 days a week. No fees are assessed for the use of facilities at Beavertail State Park. Aquarium activities have included a scavenger hunt or special programs relating to crabs, fish, whales or inter-tidal zones.
The area also has many rock formations along the coastline. Its geology offerings explore the geological history of Beavertail. Visitors can also walk the fault line and learn how to read the story written there.
The location of Beavertail Point provides many educational opportunities for science educators, and allows classes to pursue ocean studies with geological, physical, chemical or biological perspective.
For more information visit riparks.com/Locations/LocationBeavertail.html
The first Beavertail Lighthouse, built in 1749, was the premier lighthouse in Rhode Island, third in the country following the 1716 Boston Harbor light and the 1746 Brant (Great) Point light on Nantucket.
Although the wooden tower lighthouse burned to the ground after just four years, a tower that replaced it lasted until the present granite lighthouse was built in 1856, according to state records.
The base of the first two towers was exposed by the Hurricane of 1938, and today is marked by a granite plaque erected by the Jamestown Historical Society.
Karentz led the way up a small, metal circular staircase inside the current tower. There are 49 steps that take a climber to a wood-paneled watch room, just below the light. An outside observation deck circles the tower.
“There’s the old tower spot,” he says, pointing his steady hand into the breeze and to a circular stone on rocks, just steps away from the Atlantic Ocean’s foamy surf washing up.
He stares at the sprawling water from the bay on two sides and then to the seemingly endless dark blue seascape ahead. Everything below looks small and miniature compared to life size just before ascending the stairs.
“It is truly beautiful up here,” he said after a minute, and then motioned to go through a small hatch leading to the modern-day light. It uses technology unknown to keepers of the past and that brought advancements making keepers obsolete these days.
Known for many years as the Newport Light, the Beavertail beacon was first to witness the triangular trade which contributed to Newport’s prominence before the American Revolution in the colonies. Ships carried molasses, rum and slaves between them, the West Indies and Africa, according to state records.
The British damaged the lighthouse during their retreat from Rhode Island in 1779, but a few years later the light was reactivated to guide vessels of Rhode Island merchants engaged in the trade with China.
In the buildings below the light and in quarters where light keepers and their families lived, pictures and collages hang as well as with videos, all telling a detailed history.
Pictures of shipwrecks off the Rhode Island coast, a map blinking with colors of lights used by local lighthouses, descriptions of military encampments on the land during World War II, and a more than four-foot, 100-year-old magnifying glass-like cover for the lighthouse’s 100-watt bulbs are among the items displayed.
Strategic Military Importance
In this historic complex are some remaining military gun emplacements and a telecommunications hub that were part of Rhode Island’s contribution to protecting the homeland during World War II.
Beavertail’s strategic location as peninsula straddling two of the coastal passages from the Atlantic Ocean into Narragansett Bay, made it a key sentinel guarding America’s “Arsenal of Democracy” in the Second World War, according to the state DEM.
Behind the coastal forts and observation posts stretching from Point Judith to Little Compton, a beehive of wartime support activity happened in Rhode Island during World War II.
Among the important posts was Fort Burnside on Beavertail, at the harbor entrance. This command post monitored all the comings and goings of military shipping while minding the horizon against possible enemy attack.
An otherwise innocent-looking farmhouse was festooned with a thicket of radio antennae. Within it was a hardened military observation post on top of a war-room bunker. It served as the eyes and ears of a network of artillery batteries from forts all around Rhode Island.
Enormous 16-inch coastal guns, whose dens are still visible to visitors, could fire out to sea at enemy ships or submarines in intersecting arcs. They could be triggered into action by surveillance at Fort Burnside and other control posts.
Anti-submarine nets stretched across the passage openings and loops of listening devices further out to sea completed the warning system. The network served from 1942 until Germany’s surrender in 1945, according to state records.
The U.S. General Services Administration has offered Beavertail for transfer to any non-profit, educational, municipal and state organization. It is accepting applications for review and those selected for consideration will need to present plans for the site.
The Beavertail Lighthouse Museum Association is working with state and local officials for that designation, said docents Warner and Karentz.
Beavertail gives a view from the past to the present, but most importantly, they said, is the first-hand view that brings the ocean, history and enjoyment to Rhode Islanders as well as visitors to the state.
“The view is spectacular in any kind of weather,” said Warner, with Karentz adding, “It’s where the sea, the sky and the waves come together.”
For more information on the association visit its website at: www.beavertaillight.org.